The Debate About the Court

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Confirmation of a Supreme Court justice is a circus disguised as a graduate seminar. But amid all the pseudointellectual parading and posturing, there are real principles of constitutional interpretation at stake. From a libertarian point of view, I think that four basic schools of interpretation can be identified, each with its attractive and unattractive results.

1. The originalist school, in which the Constitution is interpreted according to the “original intent” of its writers. Predictably, the results are most attractive to libertarians where the freedoms explicitly mentioned in the Constitution (e.g., freedom of speech) are concerned, and least attractive where they are not (e.g., in most matters of local and state legislation).

2. The evolutionist or revisionist school, in which the Constitution is interpreted as “a living document” whose meanings constantly develop in accordance with judges’ attempts to “grapple with new conditions.” This is a very unattractive position for libertarians who want to preserve explicit constitutional rights (e.g., 2nd Amendment rights) from the social engineering of modern judges; it is more attractive to those concerned primarily with such contemporary issues as abortion and gay marriage.

Amid all the pseudointellectual parading and posturing, there are real principles of constitutional interpretation at stake.

3. The theoreticist school, in which the Constitution is interpreted, not according to its original intent, but according to its aboriginal principles, “the principles that inspired it.” For this school, the final meaning of the Constitution is found not in its words but in the theories that originally justified its words, and not in those theories as explicitly stated by, for instance, the words of John Locke, but in the system of ideas that can be found, undamaged by personal errors and contradictions, behind those words. Theoreticism sounds more abstruse than it is. It is an attempt to say that the framers worked with certain ideas of liberty; these ideas were their intellectual “intent”; and we must interpret their words as expressions of that intent, whether the words capture the whole of the intent or not. Theoreticism allows almost every constitutional controversy to result in a victory for traditional libertarian principles; it has therefore been very attractive to many libertarians. One of its unattractive features is that it allows judges with different ideas of “liberty” or the origins of “American ideas” to read the Constitution in that other light.

4. The proceduralist school is the dullest of all schools. It is not meant to be inspiring. It is meant to reduce the risk of constant judicial upheaval by demanding that judges follow orderly processes, paying due deference to stare decisis. We are hearing much of that principle these days, because modern liberals don’t want the Supreme Court to overturn past decisions that they favor. The decisions may have been reached hastily or arbitrarily, but if the results are favorable to what the liberals regard as liberty, they should stand. By the same token, conservatives challenge proceduralism — now. Proceduralism is a ball that anyone can kick. I imagine that few libertarians would want a Court that had no respect for precedent, continuity, and rules of judicial procedure; I also imagine that few libertarians would argue for the maintenance of decisions that they regard as contrary to their own theories, simply on grounds of precedent.

It would be absurd to read texts written by others without a governing respect for the authors’ choice of words.

In the battle over Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, all these schools of thought will be used and abused, though usually without reference to the names I have given them. It will be interesting to see what Kavanaugh does with them. It’s only fair, however, that I should state my own position. I am a supporter of the first school, the originalist.

Why? One reason is my belief that most of the rights that libertarians value are clearly and originally expressed in the words of the Constitution. Another reason is that I am a literary historian, and it would be absurd for me to read texts written by others without a governing respect for the authors’ choice of words, claiming that the texts mean something that their words don’t say.

But here’s where originalism is itself misinterpreted. Originalism is about interpreting what Hamilton called in Federalist No. 78 the “manifest tenor of the Constitution” — “manifest” meaning clearly evident in the original words. Originalism is about interpreting a document, not the psychology or social position or personal aims or philosophies of the authors. Shakespeare’s purpose was to make money, but King Lear is not about the importance of making money. Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott decision, thought that the authors of the Constitution, some of whom owned slaves, intended it only as a document for white people; unfortunately for him, that’s not what the document actually says.

A truly originalist reading would find little in the Constitution on which to base the vast and crushing edifice of the federal government.

To my mind, the best books on these subjects are still Validity in Interpretation and The Aims of Interpretation, by E.D. Hirsch. You can see what you think of their arguments.

The originalist school of interpretation will be least attractive to libertarians who want to claim certain rights that are real enough but are not in the Constitution, or to accomplish ends that cannot be accomplished, right now, except through revisionist courts. I am thinking, for instance, about the death penalty, which has put constitutional interpretation farther from the manifest tenor of the authors’ words than anyone could possibly have imagined. If the death penalty is bad, an originalist would say, it would be worse to try to abolish it by revisionist interpretation.

The good thing for libertarians is that an originalist reading of the Constitution — a truly originalist reading — would find little in that document on which to base the vast and crushing edifice of the federal government. And that, of course, is why we will probably hear least about true originalism during the political debates about Judge Kavanaugh. If the debaters took it seriously, most of them would be out of a job.




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The Rod of Correction

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“I don’t want to find out one day that I’m at the end of someone else’s life.”
                                                  —Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), Out of Africa

I’ve been reevaluating my formerly rosy opinion of our nation’s youth. Over the past month, I have had to deal with millennial incompetence, indifference, and downright insolence on an almost daily basis. The effect it’s having on me isn’t pretty. Soon I will be sitting on the porch in my pajamas, brandishing my Lady Smith .38 special and shouting, “Get off my lawn!”

Just this week, I commiserated with a friend who’s my age. She and I were schoolmates from kindergarten through high school. We sat in the waiting room of my doctor’s office and grumped about those darned kids. Why are so many of them so irresponsible? And why do they — as Scripture would say — resist the rod of correction?

This news was delivered with fresh-faced innocence, as if such a snafu had been totally unavoidable.

Now, by “the rod of correction,” please be assured that I don’t mean my .38. I merely mean that many young people can’t stand criticism, however polite and constructive it might be. They appear incapable of making any connection between responsibility and potential improvement. To them, it seems to be a very nasty game of tag. At all cost, they want to avoid being “it."

My friend had driven me to my appointment for the first time several days before. We’d then been informed — only after our arrival — that the pretty young thing behind the desk had scheduled it for the one day of the week when the doctor was not in that office. This news was delivered with fresh-faced innocence, as if such a snafu had been totally unavoidable. When we returned for the rescheduled appointment, we were kept waiting for an hour and a half — this time with no explanation, and as if our annoyance were a major cross to bear. By then I had lost all confidence that things would turn out right this time, and couldn’t bring myself to believe I’d actually see the doctor until she and I were face to face.

A few days before my trip to the doctor with my friend, I called our local communications monopoly to cancel my telephone service. They informed me that for internet service alone, I would be charged over $90 a month. I complained about this, and asked the customer service rep to check and see if I might get a better rate. I don’t think I was especially harsh, but the little darling must not have liked my tone. While he had me on hold, he disconnected not only my telephone service — immediately — but also my call.

When he goes home to mother, perhaps she’ll sue the company.

Perhaps he believed he’d taught me a lesson, though I don’t know what it might have been. I called his supervisor on my cellphone and filed a complaint. She was a few decades older than the service rep. She readily agreed that his conduct had been unacceptable. Had I gotten yet another twenty-something, I probably would have been asked what I’d done to provoke it.

I don’t want to think too hard about the reaction the supervisor will get when she writes up the infraction. The service rep may take an early retirement in tears. When he goes home to mother, perhaps she’ll sue the company. I’m sure I’ll be accused of having done grave damage to his self-esteem. No one in his little world is likely to wonder why his self-esteem is so fragile in the first place.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that he could have simply gotten back on the line, told me that no specials or discounts were available, and had an end to the transaction. I would have been unhappy, but not unpleasant. It was what I expected to hear, but because I have to work for my money, I thought it worthwhile to ask. He evidently thought the danger that I might react unhappily too horrible a prospect to face.

Without the ability and willingness to take individual responsibility, no human being has any real power at all.

From a millennial’s perspective, I have two strikes against me. I am a middle-aged woman — a creature who, I can attest from my own years in customer service, is notoriously feisty. I am also a libertarian. Combine those traits and you get someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Of the political philosophies in currency today, only ours makes the connection between personal responsibility and power. We tend to see responsibility, in other words, not as a bad thing, but as at least a potentially good one. With responsibility comes the ability to learn, to change course, and to grow. Without the ability and willingness to take individual responsibility, no human being has any real power at all.

In shielding young people from accountability, parents and authority figures have done them no favors. Blame is treated like a hot potato — or a hand grenade. Feeling bad is not considered a possible prelude to feeling better. It’s avoided as if it were a deadly disease.

Deep down, they know they have no power over anything. Nor is their generation the only one wearing such shackles.

Young people today give every indication that they feel not only blameless, but powerless. For all their strut and bravado about taking power, their very vulnerability attests to the fact that deep down, they know they have no power over anything. Nor is their generation the only one wearing such shackles. Their parents — and often, grandparents — are similarly entrapped.

These trusting souls, of all ages, must believe that it’s nice of the mainstream media, and all those kindhearted politicians and academic experts, to tell them what to think and how to feel. It seems to relieve them of having to think, or to interpret their feelings, for themselves. Apparently they never ask themselves whether those who tell them what to think and how to feel have undertaken this task out of the goodness of their hearts.

They couldn’t possibly have an ulterior motive. It couldn’t be that they want power and control for themselves. For suspecting such a thing, I must definitely be a cranky old lady and a crazy libertarian. But as I inch nearer to the end of my life, I don’t need to worry that I’ll find myself at the end of anyone else’s.




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What I Learned from My Paper Route

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“Where have all the paperboys gone?” asked a subhead in a must-read Reason magazine cover story by Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt published last December, provocatively entitled: “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed.”

I had a paper route, from age ten to almost my 16th birthday. It was a remarkably valuable experience. In fact, it probably taught me more about myself, money, people, and business than anything I learned in grade school, high school, and college combined.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that everything I needed to know I learned as a paperboy — to paraphrase the title of a popular mid-’80s self-help book by Robert Fulghum, in his case extolling life lessons supposedly learned in kindergarten.

My paper route probably taught me more about myself, money, people, and business than anything I learned in grade school, high school, and college combined.

I learned what I was — reliable, diligent, deadline-oriented. And what I wasn’t — a natural-born salesman, a driven entrepreneur.

I ran a small business (more of a micro-business, actually). Six days a week, rain or shine, in snow or 110-degree summer heat, I delivered between 50 and 70-odd copies of the Redding Record Searchlight to my customers in my hometown in far northern California.

For starters, the papers that arrived every afternoon in a bundle on my driveway gave me an interest in current events. I read the headlines on the front page as I rolled the papers, and my hands turned black from the ink.

I was an independent contractor. At the end of every month I went door to door trying to collect from my subscribers. When I started, I think the paper was $1.75 a month and maybe $2.50 by the time I gave up the route.

One of the biggest deadbeats on my route — a surprise to me — was a well-to-do doctor who had a house with a pool.

The first money — the easy money — that I collected went to pay the paper for my product. The harder money to collect — which often required multiple trips to the homes and apartments of my customers — was my profit.

Apartment-dwelling college students frequently skipped town without settling up with me first. One of the biggest deadbeats on my route — a surprise to me — was a well-to-do doctor who had a house with a pool. It would sometimes take four visits before he’d answer the door, and then he’d either tell me to come back or make a big deal about scrounging for change to pay me.

But I’m not complaining. I was the richest kid in the neighborhood. Other kids had allowances; I had real money.

And that made me sort of popular. Neighborhood kids would often ask me to go to the local burger joint, and I’d usually end up paying. Over time it made me a bit cynical about money and friendships.

I had a bank account with almost a thousand dollars in it when I finally quit the route. And that was after buying a bicycle or two, a .22 rifle, and a lot of fishing gear.

I learned early on that cold-calling and rejection weren’t my thing.

I always had enough as a kid, and I’ve always had enough since. Never felt greedy or driven to get a lot more.

The local TV station and the high school were part of my route, as well as an apartment building. But I soon learned that people who lived in apartments were risky customers. And I learned early on that cold-calling and rejection weren’t my thing.

I could’ve probably sold more papers to the TV station if I’d contacted the reporters, news director, and ad salesmen directly, but one copy, delivered every afternoon to the receptionist, seemed enough. Ditto the high school, where I might have sold copies to teachers or even a whole civics class. But I wasn’t a hustler.

Besides not being terribly ambitious I was lackadaisical about doing my books — meaning matching my inventory to my customer count. I often had extra papers, which of course I had to pay for. But even at that I made $50 or $75 a month. Who needed more?

So I wasn’t surprised when, as an adult, I never went into sales, never worked on commission, never went into business for myself. That was all right by me. I knew it wasn’t who I was inside.

Adults took over that job in most places years ago. Motor routes were a much more efficient way to deliver papers.

That said, I have huge admiration for entrepreneurs who risk everything on an idea, bet on themselves and work however long and hard it takes, fail more often than not, and then do it again.

And as it turned out, I was ambitious and strategically entrepreneurial in my career. All that newsprint must have gotten into my blood. I had a journalism career that included stints as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo and then as a reporter and bureau chief at Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, before I left to do public relations work for Hawaiian Electric Industries in Honolulu and the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington D.C. I ended up in management, running a D.C.-based association of state securities regulators before retiring and returning to work, again, on my hometown newspaper.

I feel bad that kids today don’t have the opportunity that I had to have a paper route. But adults took over that job in most places years ago. Motor routes were a much more efficient way to deliver papers.

And now many newspapers — like the one in my hometown, where I got my start as a copyboy and cub reporter while still in high school — are facing extinction. Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” at work.

Looking back at it now, I’m grateful to have been a paperboy and for all the lessons it taught me. It was the highlight of my childhood.

And at least I didn’t have to get a government permit, like the kids these days with lemonade stands.




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More NAFTA Nonsense

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President Trump’s irrational and infantile war on America’s NAFTA geopolitical allies and trading partners is heating up. Two recent articles illustrate this slow-motion train wreck.

First is a report on how vulnerable our agricultural sector is to Mexican tariff retaliation. The report is about how frightened American farmers are these days. Besides losing sales to China — what with its recent retaliatory tariffs on our export crops (especially soybeans) — the farmers are facing a major hit from South of the Border.

An economic fool — such as Trump — notices the grossly visible part of the economic picture, but overlooks other vital parts.

Looking at the percentages of crop products shipped abroad, the article notes that Mexico buys 7.0% of our soybean products, 14.4% of our beef exports, 27.2% of our fresh fruit exports, 27.9% of our corn exports, 36.3% of our pork exports; and a whopping 45.6% of our milk powder exports. Mexico has just started its round of retaliatory tariffs, hitting US exported cheese and pork. Iowa farmers, who account for a lot of America’s pork production, are already seeing prices decline as the foreign demand falls. In Missouri, ranchers are beginning to cut back the size of these herds, in anticipation of price drops.

Last year, America exported $138 billion in agricultural products abroad, and we had a $21 billion trade surplus. All of this brings up Frédéric Bastiat’s point about the seen and the unseen. An economic fool — such as Trump — notices the grossly visible part of the economic picture, but overlooks other vital parts. He sees the number of steelworker jobs decline, so he enacts tariffs that destroy jobs in other parts of the economy, of which he is stupidly oblivious — currently, in such companies as Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Pilgrims’ Pride, Sanderson Farms, and Tyson Foods. He also doesn’t see job losses in the American manufacturing companies that use steel, such as our automakers and industrial pipe makers.

Trump is not uniquely ignorant of economics. After all, Obama waged trade wars early on (and stopped when he saw the results). Even George Bush — generally quite solid on free trade — stupidly put a tariff on steel imports. But Trump is more of a protectionist than Obama and Bush combined — by far. And as another article notes, he has a narcissistic hair-trigger temper that leads him to freely insult allies, often by means of infantile tweets.

Trump’s asinine behavior has done something Trudeau’s incompetence has hitherto failed to do: unite all the Canadian people behind the man.

The article reports that after Canada’s PM Trudeau’s comments at the end of the recent G-7 meeting that Canada would not be pushed around by the US, Trump tweeted that Trudeau is “very dishonest and weak,” and was lying. Now, let’s stipulate that Trudeau is simply a putz. But the point is, he is a putz who is the freely elected head of the government of one of our closest allies, one whose territory forms a security shield for us, is our biggest trading partner, and has fought alongside us in all our modern wars. In short, he may be a putz, but he is our putz!

Trump’s asinine behavior has done something Trudeau’s incompetence has hitherto failed to do: unite all political parties and the Canadian people behind the man. Yes, it turns out that even the legendarily polite Canadians have had just about enough of Trump’s arrogance. And they have come to despise not only Trump but also such truculent advisors as Larry Kudlow (who whined that Trudeau “stabbed us in the back”) and Peter Navarro (who said “there’s a special place in hell” for the Putz Minister).

Actually, if Navarro had any intellectual honesty — a trait he conspicuously lacks — he would have said that there is a special place in hell for the unprincipled Kudlow. Kudlow, to his credit, spent many years advocating free markets, the benefits of widespread immigration, and (especially) the need for free trade. But the chance of working with the populist potentate Trump turned him into Trump’s trick — Stormy Kudlow, so to say — and now he publicly bashes free trade and immigration. A preacher I once heard told his parish that the Devil needs no new temptations to corrupt men; money, sex, and power still work demonically well. Like the so-styled Reverend Billy Graham, who was seduced by the power of the corrupt Nixon, Kudlow the self-styled reborn Christian has fallen for the power of the corrupt Trump. The world hasn’t seen such a tragedy since Dr. Faustus.

The most recent Pew survey shows that Canadian sentiment toward the U.S. has hit a 30-year low — only around two in five Canadians still respect us. Precisely who has stabbed whom in the back, Dr. Kudlow?




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The Ruling Class Has Split!

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For many decades, libertarians — in common with traditional conservatives and many antiwar liberals — have identified the Great Satan as the imperial presidency. This now appears to have been an overly optimistic view.

It’s not that the presidency isn’t dangerous. It’s that the leading opponents of the presidency are equally so. They are almost as potent, and they are even more tenacious about holding onto power.

I refer to the professional bureaucrats, the secret police, and the ministry of propaganda. By “professional bureaucrats” I mean all those people who set policy for and pretend to manage the nation’s vast pyramids of power — power over social welfare, public education, war, the economy, nature itself. By “ministry of propaganda” I mean the obvious: the news media, some of it (the on-air networks) the creation of government, most of it the chronic crony of government — although, like all such creatures and cronies, without compunction about ousting particular governments if possible. By “secret police” I also mean the obvious, and in this case the literal: the FBI and other national gendarmeries, leading members of which plotted to manage and then to invalidate the latest presidential election.

Revolutions don’t happen because oppressed people rise up against the state; they happen because there is a split in the ruling class.

The presidency retains its absurd powers, and continues absurdly to exercise them. Yet a year and a half into his tenure, the president and his henchmen have been unable to fire even such mid-level enemies as Peter Strzok, to prod the FBI into providing documentation that it is legally obligated to provide, or to halt a mob of government-funded lawyers, egged on by a partisan press, from entrapping the president’s associates and hauling them before kangaroo courts. That’s how far the president’s writ runs, and it isn’t very far.

When I was in college, I learned, to my dismay, that revolutions don’t happen because oppressed people rise up against the state; they happen because there is a “split in the ruling class.” I was dismayed because I wanted to picture revolution as an ideologically romantic thing, and even more dismayed because I had to read books, not about heroic moral leaders, but about such dull things as Baron Stein’s reforms of Prussia, the conflict between the noblesse de robe and the noblesse d’épée, and the hatred between Iberians and creoles in Spanish America. Dull as it is, however, the general idea was right: revolutions aren’t born among powerless people, trying to end the tyranny of the powerful; they’re born among powerful people who hate the other powerful people.

The two factions of the ruling class despise each other. They can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. It’s a fight to the death.

When you read the report of Inspector General Horowitz, this is what you see: the secret police, the propagandists, and the bureaucratic insiders waging trench warfare against the loathéd populists of the presidential clique. The two factions of the ruling class despise each other. They can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. It’s a fight to the death. But they’re not fighting, either of them, to reduce the power of government. Oh no.

The good news, and the bad news, is that such struggles are hard to confine. Conflicts within the state have often led to conflicts about the state. Power passed out of the hands of the original contestants and into the hands of people who actually remolded the state and its politics. The resulting regime was usually worse than the one it replaced. The imperial Trump and his preppy antagonists could conceivably be replaced by the mob of radicals now fighting their own civil war against the Clintonians for control of the Democratic Party.

But I don’t think America is ready to be ruled by latter-day Jacobins. I think it more likely that Americans will see, and are now seeing, that when the government has unlimited power it attracts people who want unlimited power, and that these people will become increasingly ungoverned in pursuit of it. The solution is not to replace one gang with another but to limit the power of all. I think it’s a good time for libertarians to mention this increasingly obvious fact, and never to stop mentioning it.




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Seattle Solons Sideline Squatters

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Last month (Liberty, May 10), I reported on the Seattle City Council’s attempt to impose a per-employee tax on large businesses, the proceeds of which were supposed to be used to help the homeless.

The video of the meeting (June 12) at which the Council acted in response to public opposition and repealed the head tax is entertaining. The council chamber is full of people with signs — green ones saying “No Tax on Jobs” and red ones urging a tax on Amazon, the city’s largest private employer. The people holding the green signs are quiet and the people holding the red signs are noisy. When the council members come to a vote, the red-sign people set up a chant to drown them out: “We . . . are . . . ready to fight! Housing . . . is . . . a human right!”

The council members, who had voted unanimously for the head tax a month before, explain their votes (7 to 2 for repeal). First come the progressive Democrats who are voting for repeal. Not one of them admits that the head tax is bad policy. Referring to the success of the business-led petition drive to put the ordinance on the ballot, and polls showing that on this issue Seattle’s liberal electorate sides with business, Councilwoman Lisa Herbold says, “This is not a winnable battle. The opposition has unlimited resources.” By repealing the head tax, she says, the progressives are cutting their losses. “There is so much more to lose between today and November,” she says.

“We need more resources,” the councilman says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda, who opposes repeal, talks of the vote as if it were not a defeat. What makes it not a defeat? Because she still believes in the cause. Her belief is what’s important. And also that a month before, the council did vote for the tax. “I’m proud that this council stood up in the face of intimidation and fear,” she says, just before seven of her colleagues vote to reverse their action.

Councilman Mike O’Brien says the city spent $94 million on the homeless last year, and that it is not enough. “We need more resources,” he says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

“We know what the solutions are,” says Councilwoman Lorena Gonzalez, who votes against the solution she is so sure of.

Finally comes our Socialist Alternative councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, speaking to her chanting groupies with the red signs. She calls this a defeat — and just the sort of defeat you get by putting your faith in Democrats. Her Democratic colleagues patting themselves on the back for caring about the homeless have nothing to be proud of. “This is a capitulation and a betrayal,” Sawant says.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building a socialist America.

And not of the homeless, really. The Democrats talk about the homeless. Sawant talks about working people, at one point saying that the vote to repeal the tax is a betrayal of working people, as if the squatters in Seattle’s public parks were waking up every morning, putting on clean clothes, and going to work.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building her movement for a socialist America.

Mostly Sawant was sore at her colleagues’ unwillingness to accept the business community’s challenge of a public vote. “There was a chance of winning,” she says.

A chance, yes. Not a good one.

Yes, Bezos is her enemy. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats.

Sawant berates her colleagues for surrendering to the business community and its supporters, though she characterizes it as a surrender to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Jeff Bezos IS our enemy,” she proclaims.

And I find myself agreeing with her. Not with her condemnation of Bezos or her advocacy of “social housing” and “taxing the rich,” but with her political clarity. Yes, Bezos is her enemy. Damn right. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats. They did betray her cause, and her. It was disgusting to hear them praising themselves even as they backed down, as if they could weasel out with talk. They lost, and because they lost, she lost.

It’s a glorious day.




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What Is Identity, Anyway?

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A few of my close relatives have taken DNA tests. The results have surprised me, both in ways I’ve liked and in ways I haven’t been quite so enthusiastic about.

A long-persisting family legend had it that we were part Spanish. I loved that, because it sounded so castanet-clickingly romantic. Now it turns out that we haven’t a drop of Spanish blood.

If we had any Scandinavian ancestry apart from the predominant Norwegian, I’d have assumed it would turn out to be Danish, or (sorry, Grandma) Swedish. (The Norwegians, in general, don’t much care for the Swedes. Grandma used to say that a Swede was “a Norwegian with his brains knocked out.”) Turns out that the neighbors to whom we are related are Finns and Russians.

A long-persisting family legend had it that we were part Spanish. Now it turns out that we haven’t a drop of Spanish blood.

I’m almost afraid to mention the latter connection to my left-of-center friends. They already tended to behave as if my vote for Gary Johnson singlehandedly cost Hillary Clinton her crown. Now they’re liable to think that Vladimir Putin must be my sixtieth cousin thrice removed.

Americans have gone senseless about “identity.” Though I’m not sure very many of us realize what that word means. It hints at genealogy but seems to have more to do with political tribalism.

Do I feel any different, now that I know I share some DNA with people who steam the frigid winters away in saunas, drink far too much vodka, and wear bearskin hats? I must admit that I don’t. But then again, I’ve never understood why people should define themselves by any circumstance they can neither change nor control.

Grandma used to say that a Swede was “a Norwegian with his brains knocked out.”

I think that “identity” functions as a cheap substitute for a solid sense of self. I offer, as proof of this, the fact that the identifier about which our society makes the biggest deal is skin color. At its thickest points on the body, skin takes up about a millimeter and a half of space. And for all the political dramatics about “race,” given the hundreds of thousands of years human beings have been interbreeding, there exists no guarantee that any two people who just happen to have the same skin tone are any more closely related than Cousin Vlad and I.

I strongly suspect that “race” is little more than a political construct. As is the Left’s new favorite toy, “gender.” Proof of that, I believe, can be seen in the fact that so much political hay is made of these by people who make their living making hay.

I may have declared this on these pages before, but I identify solely as me. That’s because, to use an expression I hate, “I know who I am.” Thus, not only do I get along quite well with myself, but I’m reasonably free from the manipulations of those who are determined to herd us all. The attribute that brings me closest to belonging to a voting bloc is my libertarian philosophy. But if I know us as well as I think I do, I believe I can confidently say that anyone who tries to herd libertarians is going to end up getting trampled.




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Is the Libertarian Movement Moving Anymore?

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It’s been a long time since there was a new libertarian book I wanted to read. Or a libertarian argument I itched to join.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence. I think it peaked in the ’90s.

Think back on that time. In 1994 the Republicans rallied against Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan and took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and with a staying power they hadn’t had in 70 years. Bill Clinton tacked to the right, famously saying in 1995, “The era of big government is over.” Whether or not Bill meant it, it meant something that he said it.

Politicians get their proposals from ideas current at the time. If the New Deal was socialistic, it was because in the first half of the last century, socialism was in the air. Similarly, Bill Clinton did some pro-market things in the ’90s that Democrats wouldn’t have done 70 years before.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence.

The reigning ideas had changed. When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from the free-market economists, principally Martin Anderson and Milton Friedman. Starting under Jimmy Carter and continuing under Ronald Reagan, the federal government followed the advice of the economists and ripped away price and entry controls over airlines, trucking, and natural gas. It opened up the telephone industry to competition and removed interest-rate controls on banks. The New York Stock Exchange freed itself of controls on commissions. The Supreme Court freed professionals of controls on advertising. When unions failed to seed themselves in the new tech industries, they lost their grip on most of the private economy.

Under Clinton, the government supported the extension of private property into the radio spectrum and into the North Pacific fisheries for halibut and black cod. Clinton signed the Republicans’ North American Free Trade Agreement and the Republicans’ welfare reform.

In the last half of the ’90s came the dotcom boom. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others became cultural figures in a way businessmen hadn’t since the 1920s. The Democrats were happy with the dotcom boom. Al Gore even claimed parenthood of the Internet.

When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from free-market economists.

All this was totally unlike the reigning Democratic thought of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.

And in the ’90s there came peace. For the first time since Adolf Hitler, America had no enemy. That was a new thing, and a wonderful thing.

None of this is hardcore libertarianism, but think of what libertarianism really is. The essence of it is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life. Well, the biggest threat to private life is war. From 1940 through 1973, the military could pluck a young man out of private life against his will, put a gun in his hands and make him bellow, “Yes, Sir!” But even with the draft gone, war still skews thought and feeling. It limits what a society can afford, what it can allow, or even what it can discuss. Remember the time after Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarians like to say their philosophy is about freedom, but it is a particular brand of freedom. The Left offers a brand of freedom: “Just let us control your work and property, and you can be free of worry about food, shelter, schooling, public transit, sickness, and old age.” The Left dismisses the libertarian’s freedom as “the freedom to starve” — which, among other things, it is. The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face. And if enough individuals crash and burn, people may decide the system that allows it is not worth it. The libertarian’s freedom requires a large dose of self-reliance — and in the ’90s, self-reliance was pushing forward with welfare reform and the most entrepreneurial economy since the 1920s.

The essence of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life.

Regarding self-reliance, the frontier political struggle was for private accounts within Social Security. Here was a proposal to phase down payments out of a common pot under government control and phase in individual accounts under private control. Libertarian purists were prissy about it, because the individual’s control was going to be limited and the contributions would still be compulsory, but these are not realistic people, and nothing was ever going to satisfy them. The limited Social Security “privatization” would have been a big change, a culture-shifting change. The Left sensed how big it was, and denounced it in an emotional fury as a Wall Street plot to make financiers rich. And it wasn’t. I knew who the proponents were. I had interviewed some of them and written about them. I had read their books. They weren’t trying to make money; they were trying to make the world better. The most credible ones, the ones from the commercial world, made an economic case that had to do with individual wealth, not Wall Street’s profits. (For example, see The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, bySylvester Schieber and John Shoven, published by Yale University Press in 1999.)

We forget that in the private sector, individual accounts did push aside “common-pot” pension plans. They’re called 401(k) plans. They increase the individual’s chance to gain and also his risk of loss — a net gain for self-reliance. They were put in by employers, not by employees. But with Social Security, the Democrats appealed to employees’ fear of loss, and the “privatizers” were defeated — decisively. Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s. And those who keep predicting that Social Security will fail are wrong. It won’t. Congress will fix it by raising taxes, probably by eliminating the cap on taxable income. If they have to, they’ll cut benefits in some gentle and technocratic way.

The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face.

It has been years since Republicans talked about private accounts in Social Security. It’s a dead body they don’t want to be reminded of. Donald Trump vowed never to go near it, and he won’t.

The ’90s were the time of greatest libertarian momentum. By my reckoning, they ended with several events.

The first event was the protest against the World Trade Organization in my hometown, Seattle, on November 30, 1999. The Left came out — tens of thousands of them — against trade. I had imagined that the Left had withered away like the Marxian state, but I was wrong. They were here. They would come again in the Occupy Wall Street demos, and in the Bernie Sanders campaign, loud and obnoxious.

The second event was the end of the dotcom boom in early 2000. You can extend the rules of capitalism when there is a surplus of happiness. Not otherwise.

Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s.

The third event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

After the war came another recession, worse than the one before it. Bankers and capitalists were seen to be bad, and Alan Greenspan was ejected from the people’s hall of heroes.

And then came Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Can anyone argue that we’re progressing?

Has there been a libertarian moment to compare with the ’90s? There were the campaigns of Ron Paul — which amounted to what? What did they achieve? Paul has not changed his party, as Barry Goldwater famously did. Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party, and into an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, resentful mess. Ron Paul’s son is still in the Senate, but one man does not a movement make. Note the exit of Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — not a good omen.

George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

So where are we, now? Here in Seattle, with my city council putting a (since-retracted) head tax on Amazon in order to succor the squatters on public land — and passing out tax-funded vouchers to donate to dingbat political candidates — it feels like a socialist moment. I also read in the press that Democrats across the country have turned left, and are toying with such Bernie-style ideas as free college for everyone, Medicare for everyone, and a guaranteed job for everyone. There is even babbling out there for UBI — universal basic income.

For everyone.

Those are all hobgoblin ideas until you think of the typical American Democratic politician we all know trying to define them, sell them, and get the average American to love them and pay for them. I imagine that, and I feel better. I think the socialists are selling something Americans won’t want to buy.

Anyway, I hope so.




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The Great Regressives

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Like most other libertarians, I am not a trusting friend of democracy. I think Thoreau was right when he said, “That government is best which governs least.” Democracy is a means of putting limits on government, and providing the legitimacy of consent for the few state functions that remain. One reason I am not a progressive democrat (small or large “d”) is that the progressives’ century-long demand for people to use democracy to “control the conditions of their own lives” would mean, if it meant anything, the power of every momentary majority to control the conditions of life — or death — for everyone else.

It is therefore not surprising to me that leading advocates of progressive democracy have been self-willed, dictatorial personalities who systematically confused their own whims with the will of the people. Consider Rousseau. Consider the early 20th-century progressives with their lethal mixture of socialism, racism, and prohibition. Consider Bernie Sanders.

Progressives had invented the recall, a hundred years before, but as usual the progressive power structure resorted to every possible means to keep a recall from actually reaching the voters.

Further irony is provided by the fact that the progressives’ specific schemes have always taken a socially antidemocratic form. Socialized medicine means a monopoly that can be challenged only at the risk of your life. Laws providing for collective bargaining mean a corrupt and self-perpetuating union leadership. Empowerment through education means the oppression and banality of compulsory schools.

But if you try to use the means of redress that the progressives themselves came up with, they will call you undemocratic.

Such was the case in the late campaign to recall Josh Newman, a Democratic state senator from Orange County, California. I could tell you a lot about Newman, but it’s sufficient to say that he was a party hack who won election by a few votes in a district characterized by moderate politics and then proceeded to vote for every extreme measure of the state’s Democratic leadership. One of the things he voted for was a giant increase in the gas tax, an increase that will cost the average household $800 a year. Further, he provided the two-thirds majority necessary for the extremists to pass any other bill they might wish to pass.

When he voted for the gas tax, a movement arose to recall him. Progressives had invented the recall, a hundred years before, but as usual the progressive power structure resorted to every possible means to keep a recall from actually reaching the voters. They used lawsuits, union goons, and a sudden legislative change in the rules to put off the fatal day when Newman would appear on the ballot. The anti-Newman forces spent about $2 million; the Newman forces spent about $8 million.

These sentiments were shared and preached continually by the state’s political leadership.

Now here’s the joke. Newman’s campaign dwelt on two issues: the appalling cost of a recall election (about $3 million, allegedly, and you can compare that to the billions of dollars that Newman’s votes were pulling out of Californians’ pockets); and the undemocratic nature of the recall. After all, as Newman proclaimed in his terminally self-righteous speeches, he hadn’t done anything immoral; he had voted for the tax “in good faith.” The people therefore had no right to remove him. These sentiments were shared and preached continually by the state’s political leadership and by such supposed purveyors of news as the Los Angeles Times (now virtually bankrupt, but going down with all its false colors flying).

Newman’s last move was a legislative attempt to ban “bounty signature gathering,” his phrase for paying people to solicit signatures for recall petitions and ballot initiatives. Of course, the only way you can collect the multitude of signatures that progressive law demands is by paying people to get them — and why shouldn’t you? You know why. It’s because your use of the progressives’ democratic mechanisms would cost the progressives their power.

Now comes election night, June 5, and Newman is losing by almost 20 points, and here is what happened, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Newman spokesman Derek Humphrey said in a statement that "the early numbers are not what we were hoping for," but did not concede the loss in what he termed "an undemocratic special interest power grab."

Even a late endorsement by former presidential candidate and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wasn't helping Newman. Sanders recorded a 30-second Facebook ad urging voters to back Newman while praising his support for single-payer health care, education, the environment and immigrant rights.

Well, so much for Newman; he was recalled. This episode is just a footnote to the history of “progressives” and “democracy,” a history writ large in the bloated figures of the university presidents, tech CEOs, state-supported activists, and dynastic politicians who occupy the commanding heights of today’s political economy — progressives all, and despots as far as you permit them to be, each one of them exercising the power that can only be obtained by an undemocratic special interest power grab.




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Ex Cathedra

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I apologize. I’m treading on Word Watch’s territory. But I can’t help myself, so I’ll go ahead and step in the mire: President Donald J. Trump’s pronouncements.

Does Trump lie? That is the question.

According to the Washington Post, as of May 1 the President has amassed 3,001 lies or “misleading claims.”

Really?

Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly.

Every politician lies. Stephen Cox hit the nail on the head when he stated in April’s Word Watch that, “The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.”

In spite of his hailing from Chicago, the Alamogordo of old-time political mendacity, Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly. Three examples immediately come to mind: “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.” “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history.” And the immensely more consequential — and extremely ill-conceived (especially to a libertarian) — threat he made on August 20, 2012, that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us.”

Well, that red line was a mirage on shifting sands. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry decided that they’d rely on that paragon of probity, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to ensure the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical arsenal. Not only did that never happen, but Putin used the opportunity to join the fray in Syria. What the hell — both Putin and Assad now knew that the US would do nothing. In quick succession, Assad and Putin targeted Aleppo, an opposition stronghold, destroying hospitals and massacring civilians, including fleeing doctors evacuating the wounded. The US had lost all credibility.

Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health.

What could be worse? Considering that the primary responsibility of the president of the United States is national security, a responsibility based on credibility, it’s hard to imagine anything worse in the diplomatic arena.

Obama’s excuse for not enforcing his red line ultimatum was twofold: One, he believed he was speaking from Mount Olympus . . . speaking for all of the free world without first consulting the rest of it. Two, he was in the thick of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and didn’t want to imperil it by attacking Assad, an Iranian ally.

Really?

Why not do the right thing: enforce his completely undemocratic red line and let the chips fall where they might. Was the deal worth dumping US credibility? After all, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as it is so eloquently known) was only a stopgap measure (and Trump has just withdrawn the US from it).

But the best part of that entire red line debacle was Vladimir Putin’s Obama moment. Immediately following the latest Assad Bunsen burner experiment on his people (the second in a two-part series), Vlad “The Impaler” threatened “severe consequences” if the US retaliated. So the US, this time actually consulting France and Britain and getting them to join, let loose a barrage of missiles on April 14, 2018, that proved particularly effective.

Putin’s response? “If the US does that again, there will be severe consequences!.” One month later, we’re still waiting for those consequences.

The fine print that nearly everyone misses is that papal infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals.

Donald Trump turned Obama’s lie into truth, however belatedly. And since the subject was the credibility of our national security, that puts it in a completely different category from, say, Trump’s assertion that he “unequivocally” is “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

There are lies, damn lies, spin, wishful thinking, statements of fervent intent, hyperbole, and artful irony. I’d put Trump’s health statement in those last two categories. For one, the portly septuagenarian fools no one — especially in this BMI and health-obsessed country — as to his athletic abilities. Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health. Mrs. Wilson took over for Woodrow during his near total incapacitation by a stroke from September 1919 to the end of his term in 1921, during the first five months of that period keeping the country in the dark.

As to FDR, the Associated Press claimed that “Roosevelt’s disability was virtually a state secret during his presidency.” Though he never denied he was a paraplegic, FDR did his damnedest to conceal it, virtually never allowing his wheelchair or his struggles with other aids to be photographed.

Ditto for JFK. According to The Atlantic, “the lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history — no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed.” I don’t know whether Trump was aware of those deceptions and decided on a post-ironic, “fascinating way” to indulge in hyperbole; or whether Trump just hit a “colorful” bull’s eye through sheer chutzpah and luck. I’d be tempted to put his assertion on a par with Obama’s “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history” — except that Obama was certainly serious while Trump may well have had his tongue in his cheek.

The press and the public misunderstand Trump’s pronouncements — much as they misunderstand Pope Francis’ pronouncements. The widely held belief that the Catholic Church considers the pope infallible is based on dogma declared in 1870 at the First Vatican Council. But the fine print that nearly everyone misses is that his infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals. Additionally, his infallibility only kicks in when he makes a declaration ex cathedra, “from the full authority of his office.”

Trump's brand of lying may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

When the press reported that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell or that “capitalism is terror against all of humanity” it didn’t make a distinction between whether the pontiff was speaking ex cathedra or off the cuff, perhaps using the ambiguity for its own sensationalist ends (or maybe they’re just stupidly ignorant). But the pope is also at fault. While he always specifies when he’s speaking ex cathedra, he never clarifies his other statements as informal or just personal opinions. Needless to say, the ambiguity serves his purpose.

Ditto for President Trump. Whether in tweet, press conference, base rally, or state of the union address, the president never specifies whether his statements are hyperbole, aspirational declarations, firm US policy, or just a needling dart at his opposition. But they are all — in the mind of the uber-deal maker — potential negotiating tactics. MSNBC and the Fox Five will interpret these statements in radically different ways — in ways that push their own agendas. It may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

Hell, if it works for the pope, why not for Trump?

The press and the public should stop treating every Trump pronouncement as if it were ex cathedra when he might just be P.T. Barnuming it.




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